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Arizona judge denies bid to halt cyanide executions ahead of May execution

A Maricopa County judge on Monday rejected a bid by a Jewish community group to stop Arizona’s use of cyanide gas in state executions ahead of the planned execution of Clarence Dixon on May 11. 

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joan Sinclair denied the Jewish Community Relations Council’s motion for a temporary restraining order to stop Arizona’s use of cyanide gas in executions and tossed the lawsuit.

The group sued over the state’s plan in February, claiming it was a taxpayer burden and was especially painful and troubling to the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors in Arizona.

“Approximately 80 Holocaust survivors currently call our state their home, and many of these survivors are horrified at being taxed to implement the same machinery of cruelty that was used to murder their loved ones,” said Tim Eckstein, chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, in a February statement.

According to Sinclair, the group lacked standing due to the “nominal use” of taxes to buy cyanide and refurbish the state’s gas chamber and since a death row prisoner has not elected this method of execution. 

According to the Jewish Community Relations Council, the state spent $1,529.50 on a cyanide brick and $687.11 for other chemicals in December 2020.

“Taxpayers may stop the ‘illegal expenditure’ of municipal and state funds,” Sinclair wrote in her decision. “This is true where the connection between the injury and the putatively illegal act is not too remote.”

Sinclair found the connection remote.

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“Death row inmates can choose between lethal gas and lethal injection for offenses committed prior to Nov. 23, 1992. If no choice is made, the default is lethal injection,” she wrote.

Sinclair also found judicial deference should be given to the Arizona Department of Corrections in carrying out executions.

Dixon was convicted of murder in 2008 and sentenced to death for the 1978 killing of 21-year-old Deana Bowdoin. The Arizona Supreme Court issued an execution warrant for Dixon on April 11, but he has not elected a manner of death.

He will be the state’s first execution since 2014.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich celebrated the approval of Dixon’s execution warrant last week.

“I made a promise to Arizona voters that people who commit the ultimate crime get the ultimate punishment,” Brnovich said in a statement. “I will continue to fight every day for justice for victims, their families, and our communities.”

But Dixon’s attorneys filed a motion in Pinal County Superior Court this past week to determine if he is mentally competent for execution before his May 11 date.

According to the filing, Dixon’s mental illness “renders him incompetent to be executed by depriving him of the ability to rationally comprehend the meaning and purpose of the punishment the state of Arizona seeks to exact by his execution.”

The Jewish group’s complaint described the brutality of gas executions, which reached a peak the 1970s and 1980s.

“The witnessed horrors included strenuous convulsions, agonizing gasps, agonized shrieking and thrashing, and one individual in so much pain he repeatedly smashed his head into a metal pole,” the group said in its complaint.

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